by C. H. Spurgeon
From the April 1872 Sword and Trowel
PON ONE OR TWO MATTERS we shall this month give our readers our advice gratis, and at least we shall feel sure that it is worth the fee charged for it, if not more. When a man has been more than twenty-one years in the ministry he may be considered to be of age, and upon some points, it may not be foolish to "ask him." We shall be quite willing in future numbers to give such answers as we can to any queries of sufficient importance for general edification. Though by no means skilled in the law, we have some experience in matters concerning the gospel; and will in this paper and succeeding ones give replies to certain queries which have reached us. Should any tender consciences feel aggrieved by receiving that for which they have not paid, they can forward the usual six shillings and eight pence to the Stockwell Orphanage.
I. Old Puritan asks, "What have you been saying about short sermons being the hardest to preach? What is the length to which you go yourself?"
We only quoted Dr. Chalmer's opinion that the shorter the discourse the more time it required in preparation; but we endorse it fully, and think we can prove it. When a man has nothing to say, it generally takes him a long time to get to the end of it; like a man who is going nowhere he finds he has not reached his point, and thinks he may as well keep on. When the gutters of a town ran with water, one would not be surprised if the current continued for a week; but when the conduit floods them with wine, even a king's bounty cannot afford many minutes of it. Excellence enforces brevity: you cannot have a diamond as large as a pyramid, nor a pearl of the size of a Swiss lake. In some measure with a conscientious preacher the converse of the proposition is also inevitable, and brevity enforce excellence. If the minister is allowed only forty minutes for expounding a great truth he feels that he must not multiply words; but must compress much meaning into every sentence. If only a few pounds of provision can be carried by the members of an Arctic expedition, they are wise enough to secure the essence of meat, and not an ounce of mere bone or garnishing is tolerated. Give a man abundance of stowage in a vessel, and he will not spend time in close packing; but drive him hard in the matter of space, and it is quite wonderful how much he will contrive to get into it. A truss of hay brought upon a wagon to Whitechapel is one thing, but a truss compressed by hydraulics for ocean transit is quite another. Condensation requires labor: you cannot get an Australian sheep transformed into a pot of Liebig's essence without careful cookery; neither can you distil a garden of roses into a drop of the precious otto without laborious art. The same holds good with thought, you cannot deliver it from the incumbrance and alloy of verbiage unless time and mental effort are given to the task. Of course a man can talk nonsense during the briefest period allotted to him, and it is to be feared that a great many do; but, at any rate, they cannot lay to their souls the flattering unction that the quantity made up for the quality; and the likelihood is that they will discover the nakedness of the land and endeavor to improve.
In general, a great sermon is a great evil. Length is the enemy of strength. The delivery of a discourse is like the boiling of an egg; it is remarkably easy to overdo it, and so to spoil it. You may physic a man till you make him ill, and preach to him till you make him wicked. From satisfaction to satiety there is but a single step; a wise preacher never wishes his hearer to pass it. Enough is as good as a feast, and better than too much.
Having learned by long experience that we exactly fill the 12 pages which our publishers allow for a penny sermon, when we speak for 40 or 45 minutes, we have come to adopt that period as our stint, and we usually find it neither too short nor too long. In occasional services, when we address persons who have no other opportunity of hearing us, we take more latitude, but our regulation allowance is three quarters of an hour. A man who speaks well for that length of time has told his people quite enough, and from him who preaches badly they have in that time heard too much. Most divines can deliver all their best thoughts upon a text in forty minutes, and as it is a pity to bring forth "afterwards that which is worse," they had better bring the feast to an end. To men of prodigious jaw it may seem a hardship to be confined to time, but a broad charity will judge it to be better that one man should suffer than that a whole congregation should be tormented.
The speaker's time should be measured out by wisdom. If he is destitute of discretion, and forgets the circumstances of his auditors, he will annoy them more than a little. In one house the pudding is burning, in another the child is needing its mother, in a third a servant is due in the family; the extra quarter of an hour's prosiness puts all out of order. A country hearer once said to his pastor, "when you go on beyond half-past four, in the afternoon service, do you know what I always think about?" "No," said the orator. "Well, then, I tell you plainly, it is not about what you are preaching, but about my cows. They want milking, and you ought to have consideration for them, and we will not keep them waiting. How would you like it if you were a cow?" This last remarkable enquiry suggested a good deal of reflection in the mind of the divine to whom it was proposed, and perhaps it may have a similar beneficial effect upon others who ought to confess their long preachings as among the chief of their shortcomings.
II. A Deacon wants to know whether a church ought not to hear several preachers before it selects one for a pastor?
Certainly, certainly, if the object be to divide it into a great many factions, and generate the feeling "I am of A, and I am of B, and I am of C." Many churches have been utterly wrecked while they were selecting a pilot. They had so large a choice that, like a lady in a linendraper's shop, they could not tell which to select; they grew critical; became in fact spiritual connoisseurs, and at last fell foul of one another. Beginning with prayer for God's guidance, many churches end in quarrelling for their own whims. Each new preacher will be sure to charm some, and on the other hard he will be objected to by others. The admiring company if their man be not elected, and the objectors if he should be, become too often the nucleus of discontent.
We would counsel those in office to be very much in prayer for divine guidance, and at the same time the whole church should pray much for grace to manifest discretion and forbearance. If a man be judged fit to preach as a candidate for the pulpit on other grounds, let a personal visitation be made to his present sphere of labor, that his ordinary preaching may be heard, and that the congregation may not be misled by hearing a few well-prepared discourses, which are not fair specimens of what they will have afterwards to listen to. Let it also be ascertained whether it would be fair to the man's present church to offer him any prospect of removal, for robbers of churches who steal the shepherd are not more honest than those who steal the sheep. If the preacher under consideration be unattached, the church of which he is a member should be consulted through its pastor, or his character should be quietly ascertained by reference to his former associations. Thus unworthy or inefficient men will not be put before the hearers. All being satisfactory, one man should be fairly heard, with the hope that he may be the man whom God has sent. If there be divided judgments, it will be usually the best to let that fact decide the matter without more ado than need be. One or two quarrelsome or odd people may not be so considered as to make them virtually the sole voice of the community, but as nearly as possible unanimity should be obtained, or out of respect for unity the brother should not be brought forward any further. Then another attempt should be cautiously and prayerfully made, the former preacher being as much as possible left out of all further consideration, and the next man heard by himself, and not as a rival candidate. Sooner or later, the man on whom the Lord's anointing rests will be sure to come to a people who have learned both to pray and wait; but where a factious few are aggrieved because their choice is not law, and therefore will not candidly hear another, the matter assumes a sad appearance, and the state of the church is serious. Each should consult the good of all; each should be prepared to waive personal predilection for the benefit of the whole and. for Christian fellowship sake.
Again we say, never, never have two brethren before the church at once, if it can be avoided. It is the strongest possible provocation to schism, and, while human nature is what, it is, evil will more or less ensue.
Let everything be done above-board. Managing churches is deacon-craft, and. that is just one stage worse than priestcraft. Personal friendships must not operate, or else we had better have patronage open and avowed at once; a man pushed upon one of our churches will wish ere long that he had refused the calamitous preferment. The least suspicion of anything which will not bear daylight naturally excites the indignation of our people; therefore, let there be no guile, no planning, no deviation from the open and right course. Under God's blessing, the church will come at a wise decision, if the very wise men in her midst are not too wise.
Wait, but not too long. Choose, but do not look for perfection. Every divine cannot be a Luther. Some of our most useful pastors have grown up among a people who had grace to bear with them when they were immature. You may go further and fare worse. Persons who pick a basket of fruit over and over to find an unblemished apple are more than ordinarily in danger of lighting at last upon one which is rotten at the core. We may also remember the story of the schoolboy who wanted a stick from the wood, but would not cut either this or that, because he expected to meet with a yet better one; the result being that coming to the end of the trees he was obliged to take any one that he could, and went off with a very inferior stick indeed, in no way comparable with scores which he had already passed.
Every member of a church without a pastor should feel that the community is undergoing a serious ordeal, which without great grace will prove highly injurious to it; and, therefore, each one should be doubly prayerful and watchful. We would say to all brethren in such a condition, beware of becoming connoisseurs of preaching, and faultfinders with discourses. Nothing can compensate you if you degrade yourself to this. Hear devoutly; let the critical faculty remain in abeyance. Judge only whether the brother preaches the truth, is of the right spirit, is adapted to the people, aims at winning souls, possesses an unction from on high, and labors to glorify his Master. If these things be in him and abound he will not be barren or unfruitful.
Last of all, ask the Great Head of the Church to send you an under-shepherd, and expect Him to do so. Faith will then be on the watch to find him, discernment will be awakened, and wisdom will be displayed.
Part 2 of this article appears in the May 1872 issue.